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Posts Tagged ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 27th 2003:

The abiding image that’s remained with me from George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is of a Japanese Elvis impersonator singing ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ on the soundtrack, whilst Julia Roberts and Sam Rockwell wrestle a recently-assassinated corpse into a well. The really worrying thing is that in the context of the movie this seems entirely reasonable and actually a little bit moving.

One of the good things about being the undisputed global hegemon is that you can release bio-pics of obscure pop-culture figures abroad (i.e., here) and still expect them to make money. Man in the Moon, about the almost-unknown-in-the-UK Andy Kaufman, was one, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is another. (Although knowing the British Film Council it’s only a matter of time before the life story of, say, Graeme Garden, hits the multiplexes from Tallahassee to Bakersfield to near-unanimous indifference.) The subject on this occasion is Chuck Barris, another total unknown over here (though his progeny have wreaked their insidious influence upon our cultural landscape for decades).

Based on Barris’ unauthorised autobiography, the movie boldly depicts the young Barris (played by Sam Rockwell) as a sex-crazed loser with an ambition to get into television any way he can. Along the way he hooks up with the sweet and uninhibited Penny (Drew Barrymore) who inadvertently gives him the idea for the TV game show that launched his career, The Dating Game (which is still running in the UK under the title Blind Date). But also around this time, Barris is approached by CIA agent Jim Byrd (a deadpan, moustachioed Clooney, supporting my thesis that actors directing for the first time always cast themselves) who recruits him as an assassin for the government. But as Barris’ TV shows (culminating in the no-talent contest, The Gong Show) go from strength to strength, the dangers involved in his double life become greater and greater, as does the strain of keeping them separate…

Well, Barris claims this is all true, but no-one really seems to believe him. Many of Barris’ real-life friends and colleagues appear and express their doubts on the subject, and the film keeps its tongue firmly in cheek. (Barris himself, still alive and still sticking to his story, appears in a mute cameo at the end of the film.) But the truth or not of the story doesn’t really matter as the film it’s inspired is hugely entertaining.

This is, first and foremost, an absurd, deadpan black comedy. The central conceit – producer of trash TV by day, government killer by night – is a ridiculously winning one and the script (by current golden boy Charlie Kaufman) wisely pitches the whole film at a stylised, fantastical level, avoiding the temptation to make Barris’ ‘real’ life too naturalistic or his spy exploits too far-fetched. But the characters of Barris and Penny are carefully drawn and fully rounded, and apart from the opening section, which seems a little insubstantial and over-pacy, this is an extremely classy screenplay.

It’s directed with enormous energy and a great sense of fun by the debuting George Clooney. He does a very stylish job – perhaps a little too stylish in places – and shows a good deal of promise should he decide to do this on a regular basis. He’s also managed to attract a first-rate set of actors – Brad Pitt and Matt Damon appear very briefly, but further up the cast list we find Rutger Hauer, who in the course of a quite small part dispels all memory of the rubbish he’s done lately and reminds you of just how damned good he can be. Julia Roberts sends herself up winningly as a femme fatale spy, and Drew Barrymore affectingly provides the film’s emotional centre. (Clooney’s pretty good too, though I suspect the director shot every scene in his favour.) But the film really belongs to Sam Rockwell, who gives a superb performance in a challenging and complex role. It’s only through the nuances of his acting that we get any clue as to what we’re supposed to believe in this film, or what it’s actually about.

And, without spoiling it too much (I hope), this film is really about not a dangerous mind but a mind in the throes of crisis. It is entirely understandable that a man whose main achievement was originating the format for Blind Date would want to embroider his life story just a little – or more than a little in this case. This is the story of how the dreams of youth transform into the fantasies of middle age. On the surface this is an absurd, deadpan comedy, but it has a dark and serious heart. The whole package is sharp, intelligent, and tremendous fun. Recommended.

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